Professors in Poverty

Professors in Poverty


A few weeks ago Salon published “Professors on Food Stamps: The Shocking True Story of Academia in 2014.” The article shares the plight of adjunct instructors, a lot of whom teach many courses at multiple institutions for minimal compensation.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”…

“It can be a tremendous amount of work,” said Alex Kudera. Kudera started teaching in 1996 and is the author of a novel about adjunct professorship, Fight For Your Long Day. “When I was an adjunct, I didn’t have a social life. It’s basically just work all the time. You plan your weekend around the fact that you’re going to be doing work Saturday and Sunday — typically grading papers, which is emotionally exhausting. The grading can be tedious but at least it’s a private thing. It’s basically 5-10 hours a day for every day of the week.”…

One professor from Indiana who spoke to Salon preferred to remain anonymous. “At some point early in my adjunct career, I broke down my pay hourly. I figured out that I was making under minimum wage and then I stopped thinking about it,” he said…. “We have food stamps,” said the anonymous adjunct from Indiana. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them.”

How big a problem is this in philosophy? According the AAAS report, 31% of philosophy faculty are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. According to the Salon article, 75% of all faculty in the US are adjunct. If these numbers are correct, then philosophy is doing better than average, especially since not all of that 31% will be adjuncts (they may be full-time non-tenure track instructors, for example). Yet that does not seem like grounds for complacency.

We have noted and discussed these and related issues here before: on whether departments should resist creating certain kinds of positions, on the advertising of exploitative jobs, on having the U.S. Department of Labor investigate these positions, on what departments can do to help graduates find jobs outside of academia, and so on. Articles like the Salon piece and one in The New York Times noted here, as well as events like National Adjunct Walkout Day raise awareness of the problem.

Many questions remain, though. Some of these are about what institutions can do and how they should be structured. Most of the discussions so far have focused on that end. But there are also questions about individual behavior here. What, if anything, should individual tenured or tenure-track faculty members do to address the conditions of adjunct faculty? What should individuals who find themselves unable to move from the cycle of adjuncting into more secure academic employment do? What is it about academia that leads so many clearly talented and intelligent people to stick with poorly compensated and time-consuming positions, rather than move to other careers?

 

(art: detail from Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent)

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Drew
Drew
6 years ago

I’m really curious about your last question myself. I am working on my (non-philosophy) Phd (well, technically it’s a Doctor of Philosophy, but you know..). My dream job is a TT professorship. Second-best would be prestigious post-doc. Third best would be private or public sector. About 99th on the list is permanent adjunct faculty. Why do people stay for years struggling in these positions?Report

grad
grad
Reply to  Drew
6 years ago

Drew,

Quite often adjuncts continue to adjunct because they have urgent financial needs, e.g. kids to feed, rent to pay, etc. Transitioning to a more financially-secure career often requires both time and money. If you can’t save on an adjunct’s “salary,” then it becomes virtually impossible to get off the treadmill without help from a significant other, a parent, and so on. Perhaps others stay on for different reasons–e.g. hope of secure employment–but I’d speculate that the first reason is the major one.Report

Drew
Drew
Reply to  grad
6 years ago

Oh, granted that’s a problem, but it’s certainly not one limited to adjuncts, it’s something that I would suspect most people face. At some point you have to just make the time, even if it’s 10 minutes every few nights to send out resumes. And I certainly think “career” at this point is not something we should necessarily aim for when you’re struggling. Sometimes “job” is good enough until you can figure out something better.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Drew
6 years ago

But, Drew, adjuncting *is* the ‘job, not a career’ that the people “grad” describes have settled for.

The problem is that you’re looking for an individual explanation and assuming there is a correspondingly individual solution for what is, in fact, a systematic problem. By all means, people in dead end adjunct positions should be given encouragement to try for something else if they can. But this is not a growing segment of higher-ed employment because adjuncts have systematically forgotten to send out their resumes.Report

Drew
Drew
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Well I think you’re approaching it a bit simplistically; because I am looking at decisions made on an individual level does not mean I think that they will provide all the explanation for the problem. Of course there’s a systematic problem in employing PhD graduates, but that problem has a lot of causes, and not all of them are institutional; some of them are indeed driven by collective individual decisions. I don’t think even the most Continental Continentalist would say that living in adjunct hell is purely a function of power disparities and institutional callousness.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Drew
6 years ago

Once you’re in it can be hard to get out. If you’re behind on your bills, you have to find another way to make money in the short term. If you’re already adjuncting, often the easiest way to do this will be to take on more classes. But then you have an even great workload, so it’s even harder to start the very difficult task of figuring out what to do instead. And your ability to take advantage of other opportunities is hampered by the fact that your job acts according to the academic job cycle, while other jobs you might try to get are not.

I say this as someone who will *not* spend years doing this. But it’s hard to know what plan B is, especially in the short term. If I knew something else better to do in the short term, I wouldn’t be adjuncting. And I’m lucky enough to have family to fall back on if I don’t have money to cover unexpected emergencies because I’m not trying to teach 6 classes at three different universities.

That means I have time not only to work on articles for publication and applications for tenure-track positions, but I also have time to volunteer and make connections in other, non-academic parts of my community. That has put me in a better position to find a plan B, even though I don’t know what it is yet. But most people that get stuck in the adjunct cycle don’t have the luxury of taking this much time to figure it out.Report

Anony
Anony
Reply to  Drew
6 years ago

Drew, one of the best places to read details about why someone remains an adjunct can be found in the blog posts and comments here: http://adjunct.chronicle.com/

Reasons that I have frequently come across here and elsewhere are things like a passion for teaching, the hope of landing a more permanent position, and the difficulty of abandoning the dream of becoming an academic. Such motivations, in my opinion, do not differ all that much from the motivations of undergraduates applying to graduate programs with weak job placement records or of graduate students devoting years to their studies with little hope of any economic return.

But what, exactly, do you expect to gain from understanding the motivations of someone who holds an adjuncting position? Is it that we may discover that adjuncts themselves bear responsibility for the misery and hopelessness of their circumstances rather than individual departments or the discipline at large? Wouldn’t that be a relief.Report

Rosa Terlazzo
Rosa Terlazzo
6 years ago

I think it would also be worth considering *why* it is that philosophy as a discipline has an adjuncting rate so much lower than other disciplines. If it’s something that we’re doing well, then maybe that tells us what we could be doing better, and provides some action guidance. If it’s just a feature of the discipline, then maybe that helps us to build a strong discipline-specific case that can help with action guidance at the department level if not at the individual level. (While I think it’s worth explicitly considering why we’re doing a better job, I have no idea. I’ve often read the 75% adjuncts in academia stat and thought that it didn’t seem representative of philosophy, but I’m actually shocked that we’re doing *that* much better. Do we think it reflects a real difference, or just a difference in how measurements are being done?)Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Rosa Terlazzo
6 years ago

One thing I thing that is different is that, unlike in many other disciplines senior philosophers regularly teach the required introductory gen-ed ‘service’ classes that all or most students are required to take. In contrast, teaching English composition or introductory language classes is something that senior professors in those disciplines often try to opt out of. I suspect something similar goes in in some of the sciences, especially in, e.g., required lab classes. Thus other disciplines have an internal reason to maintain a two-tier division among their instructors, whereas philosophy does not. That said, I think we are far enough along in this process to see the writing on the wall. Things in philosophy are not as bad as in these other disciplines, but we seem to be heading down the same path they have, and we can see where it leads.Report

Anonymous and Contingent
Anonymous and Contingent
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

I think this is close, but there’s something more. I think that a disproportionate share of gen-ed required classes are philosophy classes (or are fulfilled by philosophy classes). So I think that philosophy departments have fewer teaching slots which are true gen-ed classes. If those are the slots that departments will often hire adjuncts for, then philosophy will have disproportionately fewer adjuncts not because of something endemic to teaching philosophy but rather because others don’t take philosophy to be something important for gen-ed.

For what it is worth, I’m a contingent instructor teaching a required gen-ed philosophy course, and there seem to be lots of contingent philosophy faculty here. Maybe even half of the names on the list are contingent, though I’m not sure.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Anonymous and Contingent
6 years ago

You and me both, Anonymous and Contingent. But look around at the composition classes or introductory language classes at your university. In many cases you won’t find *any* senior faculty teaching those classes, and you may not find any tenure-track faculty at all.Report

Kenny
Reply to  Rosa Terlazzo
6 years ago

It would be interesting to know who those 75% are. Is it large numbers of foreign language instructors, freshman composition instructors, musical instrument instructors, lab instructors, etc.? Or are there some disciplines that have started sending many of their core classes out to instructors too?

It might also be useful to see what the numbers look like when we look not at fraction of instructors who are adjuncts, but rather what fraction of courses are taught by adjuncts, or what fraction of student-hours are taught by adjuncts. Some of these things are taught by adjuncts because of how labor-intensive they are – if you need to keep class sizes down (like with language instruction, and especially music lessons, which are often one-on-one), then you might have large numbers of adjunct instructors even if not many student-hours involve adjuncts; but it’s quite different if it’s large intro-level classes, or even some upper-division ones.

I don’t know what the implications of any of these facts might be, but it seems like it might be relevant to know more about this.Report

ejrd
6 years ago

I’d imagine that at many places, ALL non-tenure track faculty may be counted as adjuncts. I certainly know of universities where someone may have “adjunct lecturer” as their title yet have a year-long contract with a salary and health benefits. It’s still not fantastic labor (year-to-year job insecurity is an enormous stressor) but it does differ significantly from those who are paid-by-the-course adjuncts whose horizons may be only a month or two ahead. I’m wiling to bet the 75% may be tenured/tenure-track vs. everyone else.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  ejrd
6 years ago

Yes, I think this may be the source of the 75% number and, if so, it includes full-time NTT positions as well as grad student instructors.

“Combining the contingent employment categories as described above, the graph shows that more than three of every four instructional staff positions (76 percent) are filled on a contingent basis.” and “Under the heading of contingent instructional staff we include full- and part-time faculty members not on the tenure track and graduate student employees.”

http://www.aaup.org/report/heres-news-annual-report-economic-status-profession-2012-13
With the relevant table here:
http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/2013%20Salary%20Survey%20Tables%20and%20Figures/Table%201.pdf

(Credit to this critique of the original Salon article for the links, though I haven’t read the argument in detail:
http://stevendkrause.com/2014/09/21/75-more-or-less-of-college-professors-are-not-tenure-track-can-we-get-more-specific-on-that/ )Report

AA
AA
6 years ago

Thanks for opening up this important topic. Let me try to offer off-the-cuff (and hence incomplete…) answers to each of your questions.

1. What, if anything, should individual tenured or tenure-track faculty members do to address the conditions of adjunct faculty? I think they should do something, not nothing. The reason is that tenured and TT-track professors are in positions of immense privilege, and with privilege comes a serious responsibility to fight against injustices others suffer. As for what to do, I’m not too sure. But I can say this: if tenured/TT faculty were threatened with the same disenfranchisement as are many adjuncts, there’d likely be some kind of protest/refusal to work. So why not something similar for our adjuncting colleagues (who almost all of us so easily could have been/might be)?

2. What should individuals who find themselves unable to move from the cycle of adjuncting into more secure academic employment do? Without sounding harsh, they should either try to adjust their lifestyle expectations to their income, or take up a different job. The former isn’t inconceivable, depending on how far you want to take things. It’s possible to live on $25 000/year, but you’re going to have to give up a lot, be very spartan, and you probably need to have little to no debt coming out of school. Some of us are in that position, but still aren’t willing to give up middle class comforts and standards of success. Perfectly understandable, but that’s the choice nonetheless.

3. What is it about academia that leads so many clearly talented and intelligent people to stick with poorly compensated and time-consuming positions, rather than move to other careers? Its insularity and myopic view of success (which isn’t to say it’s possible to be a great and worthy success as an academic).Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Thanks to daily nous for its ongoing coverage of issues to do with part-time, adjunct, and other non-tenured faculty.

A great suggestion from Rebecca Schuman is that we call on U.S. News and World Reports to advertise adjunct percentages more prominently in their rankings (right up there with or before faculty to student ratio) and to weight adjunct percentages more in developing rankings. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/01/adjuncts_in_american_universities_u_s_news_should_penalize_colleges_for.html

A petition directed at U.S. News and World Reports might be an effective way to publicize this issue.

Quite off-topic, rebecca schuman will forever have a place in my heart for coining the term ‘philoso-bro’: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/02/sexual_harassment_in_philosophy_departments_university_of_colorado_boulder.htmlReport

It's Simple Really
It's Simple Really
6 years ago

“What is it about academia that leads so many clearly talented and intelligent people to stick with poorly compensated and time-consuming positions, rather than move to other careers?” If you got a PhD in humanities, you can’t get a job.Report